|Introduction and Specifications|
There was a period of time last year where it seemed like every other ultraportable was based on Intel's CULV platform. At the time, we figured that was just the way it was going to be for a while with ultralight notebooks. But then, AMD finally got around to shipping some Fusion based APUs. And since then, the mobile space has been hopping with new activity. Consumers have never had such a wealth of notebook options to choose from, and with Fusion, prices are remaining reasonable and battery life is improving too.
MSI's X-Slim lineup garnered industry-wide praise when launched a couple of years ago, and now the line-up is stepping up to Fusion. The X-Slim X370 is the company's newest ultraslim machine, and while it doesn't look too different than X-Slim machines of the past, the internals are definitely deserving of a closer look. The X370 is powered by a dual-core E-350 Accelerated Processing Unit, and it's joined by a very nice list of extras. We'll break those down below.
$599.99 doesn't make this a "bargain" machine, but look at what you get. A highly mobile, 13.4" machine with AMD's latest HD-crunching Fusion platform, a robust 4GB of RAM, a spacious 500GB HDD and an 8-cell battery. For $600, that's a pretty decent value, particularly when you consider than some of the higher end netbooks were going for $499 not too long ago.
|Design and Build Quality|
|MSI's design team had their work cut out for them. The company not only makes ultraportables like the X-Slim range, but also Wind-series netbooks and beastly fast gaming notebooks. For this machine's $600 asking price, it's expected that some corners had to be cut, and it's pretty obvious when you first crack the lid of the X370. The outside is pretty nice. There's a gently accented, glossy black lid with chrome around the edges, but the matte plastic (textured) palm rest surround just feels second-rate.
Granted, this is a $600 machine, so it's not out of character, but we were able to hear a few creaks and squeaks when just handling the notebook as we normally would -- toting it from couch to desk, for example. The keyboard is a non-chiclet design. We get the feeling that the hot-and-heavy chiclet bandwagon is losing members left and right, and we aren't particularly saddened. They have their place, but a spacious 13.4" ultraportable deserves a spacious keyboard.
Unfortunately, MSI chose to drastically change the lengths and placements of a few vital keys, requiring us to acclimate to it. We made a number of typographical errors thanks to the shortened right Shift key, and very awkward placement of the Home, Page Up, Page Down and Edge keys means that the Delete and Backspace keys -- two that are very important -- aren't where you'd normally expect. We have to believe that there was a better solution out there than changing the keyboard layout we've all grown used to.
There's also no backlight underneath the keyboard. That's not shocking given the price, but it's a bit of letdown. The saving grace here is the trackpad. It's not perfectly center (instead it's justified underneath of the space bar), but it's spacious and perfectly tactile. The gentle texture is great for scrolling your finger across, and the single silver trackpad button is the first of its kind that we actually enjoyed. Asus should really take note here. Clicks were recognized easily, and we found it remarkably easy to scroll around the screen with the trackpad; precision was top-notch.
Sadly, the keyboard travel was lacking. The keys felt too light and plasticy, and we felt a lot of give and wiggle -- more than we hoped for. There's also four palm rest stickers, or around four too many for our liking. Along the front edge, you'll find a smattering of status LEDs, and along the right edge you'll see two USB 2.0 ports, audio in/out ports and an AC input. The rear isn't home to any ports, and the left side is home to an SD card slot, full-size HDMI output, VGA output and Ethernet jack. The front edge, or just under it, is where you'll find two exhaust vents, and believe us when we say that these get used.
The 13.4" (1366x768) panel is surrounding by a glossy black bezel, and a 1.3MP webcam sits above it. The panel itself isn't much to write home about. The viewing angles aren't great; get off-center by a few inches, and colors start to wash out pretty quickly. Not so much a problem if it's just you, but if you're asking colleagues to have a look at a presentation, some may not get a good view.
Overall, the build quality on the X370 is average. But it's exactly the kind of build quality we'd expect in a $600 ultraportable. It's light, though somewhat flimsy in spots, has a subpar keyboard, an easily washed-out display and an above-average trackpad. Honestly, it's a mixed bag as far as build quality is concerned, but what about the overall user experience and performance? Let's find out…
|Pardon us if some of this feels like repeated statements from our time with Lenovo's ThinkPad X120e, but the standard E-350 setup is starting to feel really familiar, and that's not really a bad thing. A lot of the Fusion-based machines shipping out today have identical hardware specifications, or really close to identical. The X370 is definitely a dead-ringer for the prior Fusion-based machines that we've reviewed, at least internally.
What does that mean? It means that you can count on great 720p and 1080p HD video playback, so-so gaming performance on yesteryear's 3D titles, fairly decent multi-tasking, a bit of lag when loading up an application for the first time, and great battery life with just a bit of heat output. That's become the norm for Fusion-based rigs, and that's the case here.
The only real difference is that due to the X370's slim chassis, it emits more heat (but perhaps surprisingly, less noise) than other Fusion machines we've seen. The two vents beneath the front edge were churning out hot air nearly the entire time we were using the machine, even if we were only engaged in simple tasks like surfing the Web and penning a Word document. The fans weren't too boisterous, though.
The overall user experience, however, was satisfactory. The performance in everyday chores is solid, and it becomes even more so once you clear out a bit of the bloatware that ships withthe machine (Norton, a few IE toolbars, etc.). While even Firefox takes a few seconds to load at first launch, it's snappy afterwards, and multi-tasking is (for the most part) fien once you've gone through the launch process of each program.
Watching multi-media was fantastic, and some light-duty gaming was possible as well. Unfortunately, the X370 isn't much of a presentation machine, as the viewing angles go sour pretty quickly when you start deviating from dead-center. However, the incredible trackpad really made it comfortable to use for long sessions, though the awkward keyboard layout took some getting used to. After an hour or so, we weren't dealing with too many errors, and while the keys could stand to be a touch more rigid, they definitely served the purpose.
|Futuremark 3DMark 06 / 11 and PCMark Vantage|
Designed to measure your PC’s gaming performance 3DMark 11 makes extensive use of all the new features in DirectX 11 including tessellation, compute shaders and multi-threading.
We ran the system through Futuremark’s latest system performance metric PCMark Vantage as well. This benchmark suite creates a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads including High Definition video and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity. We like the fact that most of the tests are multi-threaded as well, in order to exploit the additional resources offered by multi-core processors.
Yet again, this is a great example of how the Zacate E-350 APU is much more powerful than the Neo before it, and definitely more powerful than an Atom + ION combo. These numbers are proof that AMD really cranked up the performance on Fusion, and you can definitely feel it in real-world use. The X370 found itself squarely in between the two other Fusion rigs we've reviewed this year, but it's close enough to the X120e that we couldn't really tell a difference between the two in real-world use.
|SiSoftware Sandra & Multimedia Benchmarks|
We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA 2011, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic,
CPU Arithmetic Test; Click To Enlarge
CPU Multimedia Test; Click To Enlarge
Memory Bandwidth Test; Click To Enlarge
Physical Disc Test; Click To Enlarge
Our gauntlet of SiSoftware SANDRA tests show that the E-350 is capable of hanging with some pretty stout competition. There's no Atoms in this list of rivals; the E-350 has the capability to hang with more advanced CPUs, and as we've stated throughout, you feel it. At last, we see a netbook chip that makes the netbook experience one that's enjoyable.
To test multimedia capabilities, we attempt to play back a 720p WMVHD clip, a 720p H.264 clip and a 1080p clip. We've also included a screenshot of the 1080p clip from the Mini 311 (which uses the first gen NVIDIA Ion GPU) to give you a better idea of CPU utilization from a different type of system.
Click To Enlarge; 720 H.264 - X-Slim X370
Click To Enlarge; 720p WMVHD - X-Slim X370
Click To Enlarge; 1080p - TX-Slim X370
Click To Enlarge; 1080p on HP Mini 311 w/ Ion
We assumed the E-350 would be plenty capable of handling 720p and 1080p multi-media playback, and indeed it was up to the task. It actually pegged the system resources a bit higher than we had imagined, but loading the clips was quick and playback was perfectly smooth throughout. It may not be the same if you have encoding or number crunching going on in the background, but so long as you don't treat your X370 like a mobile workstation, you should enjoy crisp, stutter-free playback. Please note, however, that GPU accelerated Flash video playback is still a work in progress and will require updated drivers or a plug-in at some point.
For our next set of tests, we moved on to some in-game benchmarking with Left 4 Dead 2, Half Life 2: Episode 2 and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. When testing processors with HL:E2, L4D2 or ET:QW, we ran a pre-recorded demo of each at a resolution of 1280x720. Since these are more entry-level game tests on highly mobile platforms, we left anti-aliasing turned off and image quality settings set from moderate to high levels where possible.
In all of these tests, it's clear who the winner is: Zacate. Yet again, AMD's Fusion chip has proven to be a real contender, putting the older Neo platform in the X100e (and the Atom in the 1201N) to shame. Granted, this APU isn't strong enough to allow hardcore gamers to churn out high framerates on an external monitor, but it's powerful to play some of the more modern titles at lower resolutions. For a sub-$600 machine, we find this pretty impressive. It also shows just how weak the Atom looks in comparison.
If there's one thing a netbook (or an ultraportable) needs to be really competitive, it's great battery life. No matter how great the software or the hardware, an ultra-mobile machine needs great battery life to be really useful in the field. Like the X120e and dm1z before it, the X370 is a unit where we were paying particularly close attention to battery life. Remember, the Fusion APU was supposed to be more powerful than AMD's previous gen Neo chip, while also improving on energy drain.
The X100e that we reviewed last year only managed around 2.1 hours of life, while the X120e (both using a 6-cell battery) managed around 3.5 hours in the same test. With an 8-cell battery (which doesn't add too big a bulge underneath), the MSI machine managed 355 minutes during our rundown test. We're sure it could do better under less intense conditions as well. That's impressive, and it's definitely one of the highlights for the X370 as a whole.
|Summary and Conclusion|
Performance Summary: In our SiSoftware Sandra tests, the X-Slim X370 stood up to the other Fusion based competitors, and held its own. But that's to be expected, given that the internal specifications of this year's Fusion ratpack are largely similar. The X370 doesn't deviate too much from the formula shown by companies already this year, but it's just more evidence that the E-350 APU is a solid alternative to the pricier CULV laptops of last year. The machine was plenty capable of handling everyday computing chores, as well as HD multi-media playback, a bit of light-duty gaming and a good bit of multi-tasking. This level of performance is bound to satisfy the vast majority of consumers; power users will need to spend more to get more, but at just $600, there's a good deal of power under the hood here.
We're fans of AMD's Zacate processor. What AMD has been able to accomplish with Fusion is to be applauded, and while it took a while for a legitimate Atom contender to show up, we happy now that it's here. The E-350 is a great APU, and the X370 nicely showcases what AMD has worked so hard for. The exterior here is stylish and eye-catching, and while some of the plastics feel a bit flimsy in spots, there are more pros than cons. The trackpad really is best-in-class, and while the awkward keyboard layout took a bit of getting used to, we still prefer it over some of the cramped chiclet keyboards we've dealt with in the past. We also appreciate the full-size HDMI/VGA outputs, and while there's no optical drive, the ultra-slim nature of this machine is hard not too like.
Click To Enlarge
The X370 maintains the wildly slim motif of past X-Slim machines, but really steps it up on the performance front. You'll be hard-pressed to find a more mobile, more potent Windows laptop right now for under $599, but we will confess that the $550 - $650 notebook market is getting stacked right now. Fusion-based machines are flying in left, right and center, and MSI's going to have a lot more competition in a month or so as well. Is the X370 worth buying? If you like its jazzy styling, yes, but others may prefer Lenovo's more rigid, subdued ThinkPad X120e, given that both machines have nearly identical specifications and price points. It's hard to go up against that legendary build quality, but MSI deserves credit for bringing good all-around performance to a seriously slim machine. And did we mention its top-of-class 355 minutes of battery life?